[In this analysis, our own Chris Morris discusses the potential resurgence of 'edutainment' games, talking to Southpeak and examining Warner Bros' moves into the relatively neglected category.]

There is, I will admit up front, absolutely nothing sexy about edutainment titles. Hell, even the name is dull – and sounds like it belongs in a boardroom, alongside words like ”synergy” and “paradigm”.

Core gamers won’t look at ‘em. Kids like ‘em fine until someone spills the beans about them being educational. And, since so many are targeted at toddlers and young kids (a very niche audience), they’re not exactly barnburners when it comes to a publisher’s bottom line.

So it makes sense that the industry has basically moved away from them, right?


Despite their dorky name, edutainment games (particularly those made for toddlers) are gateways into the game industry. They’re an investment in the future, of sorts.

For years, they were a rather unnecessary one, since kids were likely to gravitate towards handhelds and consoles anyway, as there weren’t many other choices.

But as the industry evolves, they could become more critical to long-term growth.

At my house, for example, my three-year old has begun to show an interest in electronic gaming over the past six months or so.

But as I’ve watched her play, I’ve noticed something. She has virtually no interest in the Xbox 360. She only cared about the PlayStation 3 when I was testing EyePet – and even then, it was marginal. And she won’t even pick up the Nintendo DS. But put an iPhone or iPad in front of that kid – and she’s off to the races.

The reasons are pretty simple. The interface on iDevices is significantly more intuitive – but it really comes down to the fact that the app store has a ton of games and apps that are built specifically for young children – and they’re hot downloads.

The growing number of kids who spend their formative years playing on their parents’ iPhone and iPad (or perhaps even their own previous generation iPod Touch), are, in fact, the next generation of gamers. And the tastes they are currently developing are for snacky, bite-sized games that don’t come from traditional publishers.

At least two companies seem to realize this – and are taking steps to win back young players.

Warner Bros. recently launched a pair of Sesame Street-themed titles – Elmo’s A-to-Zoo Adventure for the Wii and Cookie’s Counting Carnival for the DS– while SouthPeak Games announced plans Wednesday to introduce a new line of interactive education games. (The first, for the Nintendo DS, is due out in November.)

“People have abandoned the category and there’s a great opportunity there,” Leslie House, vice president of product development for SouthPeak tells Gamasutra. “Parents still believe their children should learn as much as possible - and the use of these mobile units has really changed the way kids can play and learn.”

Edutainment was actually a fairly big category when the PC was king of the gaming hill. But as the industry’s interest shifted to consoles, publishers followed the money and focused more and more on AAA titles. The category basically became the sole domain of Leapfrog - which focuses solely on learning aids disguised as games.

As mobile gaming has become a more powerful category over the last several years – with both the launch of the DS and iPhone – younger players have migrated in that direction - something SouthPeak hopes to exploit.

While the company’s first game, Tap and Teach: The Story of Noah’s Ark, is on the DS, it has big plans for iDevices as well. The common thread? Touchscreens.

“Kids, at a very young age, understand the interface of something they can touch – where they’re not separated from the screen by a mouse (or controller),” says House. “We think there’s an opportunity there - where playing and learning become a lifestyle.”

There has been plenty of debate on the impact of Apple’s devices on the gaming industry – with revenues vs. time spent generally being the two sides people take. But initial gaming loyalties can run deep – just ask lifelong Nintendo fans, many of whom got their start on the Game Boy.

Sure, it was content that captured them, not the device. But the never-ending stream of games to the app store is starting to produce some classics of its own. Could Angry Birds be the next generation’s Mario? It seems ludicrous to current gamers, but for many kids, that’s a go-to franchise for fun.

It’s too early to say with any certainty whether today’s young iPhone and iPad users will continue to remain loyal to Apple devices, of course. But it’s a threat the industry can’t ignore long-term.

And, to be fair, Microsoft, at least, doesn’t appear to be. Kinect might look like just another variation on motion control to a lot of people – but it’s also a new interface style that just might be distracting enough to woo young gamers. And, as with Apple, that could pay off significantly down the road.

“The research we’ve seen shows that kids start to form alliances to brands very early,” says House.